If you feel “off” more often than you’d like, you aren’t alone. Many people do.
In The Practice of Groundedness, I traced this general sense of dis-ease to a concept I called heroic individualism: an ongoing game of oneupmanship against yourself and others where the goalpost is always ten yards down the field. Heroic individualism is a vicious spiral of go, go, go; more, more, more; nothing is ever enough. It is striving unhinged, the result of which is a frantic and frenetic lifestyle overflowing with busyness, restlessness, loneliness, and, eventually, emptiness. I argued that the root problem of heroic individualism is that we fail to properly ground ourselves with a solid foundation of habits and practices in our lives.
Since the book came out, something I hear frequently from readers is how helpful it has been to have not only ideas for the solution but also a name for the problem. Once you give something a name, it loses some of its power of you. You can identify when you are trapped in it. You can wrestle with it. You can discuss it with others.
It is in this vein that I’d like to propose a new term, which, for many people, is a key component of heroic individualism: internet brain.
Internet brain results from spending too much time on the internet. It manifests as an inability to focus for long periods of time; a strong desire to “check” something—be it social media, email, trending topics, or your favorite newspaper’s landing page—even, and perhaps especially, when you don’t actually want to; a constant feeling of adrenaline that is somewhere between excitement and anxiety; a lack of patience for anything that is inherently slow; and a significantly harder time being present in offline life, such as constantly needing to pick up your phone.
The culprit to internet brain? The mechanics of the internet itself.
The internet is one big dopamine machine. The whole enterprise is set up to give us quick and intermittent rewards whenever we want them. The most clear (and perhaps worst) offenders are the social media platforms, with their likes, comments, and retweets that reinforce our relevance and sense of identity. But even reading a long-form article on the web has the same characteristics. You can click on a link to go elsewhere and be rewarded with more information. Or, if you are bored, you can simply pop over to the next tab and be rewarded with novelty.
To be clear, the internet has all manner of benefits (here we are right now) and I wouldn’t get rid of it if I could. I think the internet has the potential to be a net positive for the world, if it isn’t already. And yet, like any technology that’s still in its infancy, we ran into the internet blind. My hope for internet brain is that it gives us language to realize when we’re in too deep, too often, for too long.
For me, internet brain kicks in when I am regularly spending more than two hours online per day. This is precisely what makes book launches and periods of intense book promotion so hard. Internet brain is an occupational hazard. But at least now I have a way to talk about it. Nothing is seriously wrong. I’m just spending too much time on the internet.
I think a decent analogy is food. You’ve got to eat if you want to survive. You can’t “quit” eating, and there are many healthy ways to eat. And yet, especially with our technologically advanced and highly engineered food—which, by the way, works on the same dopamine channels as the internet—many people overeat and feel sick as a result. Imagine if we didn’t have words such as “overeating” or “disordered eating.” It would be a lot harder to discuss various types of unhealthy relationships with food.
Internet brain offers us all a way to discuss the traps of spending too much time on the internet. It also helps us to not assign false blame to other elements of our lives (e.g., relationships, work, maybe even the weather) when the actual problem is our current online consumption and habits.
The solution to internet brain is simple: get off the internet, or at least cut back on the time you spend there!
But simple does not mean easy.
And without being able to name the problem, we’ll never make progress in resolving it.
(For more on developing groundedness, which is at least one skillful way to recognize and minimize internet brain, check out The Practice of Groundedness! A side benefit: reading an offline book is one of the best ways to reset your brain when it’s internet overloaded!)